Admissions lotteries unlikely to diversify selective colleges, study says

A new study published in the journal Educational Researcher explores how admissions lotteries might affect the student body makeup at selective colleges and universities, finding that the approach would have “dramatic and negative potential effects…on the participation of students of color, low-income students, and men.”

Over the years, various higher education observers have floated lotteries—in which colleges would choose which students to admit by drawing names at random from a pool of applicants who meet minimum eligibility thresholds—as a potential solution to inequity in the admissions process.

The downsides of ‘a giant game of chance’

However, the new results suggest that “turning it into a giant game of chance might make things worse,” The Chronicle of Higher Education writes. For their study, Dominique J. Baker of Southern Methodist University and Michael N. Bastedo of the University of Michigan used U.S. Department of Education data and Barron’s data to analyze the likely effects of admissions lotteries with eligibility criteria related to grade point averages (GPAs), SAT/ACT scores, and a combination of the two at moderately and highly selective colleges.

In almost every simulation, the researchers found that admissions lotteries would drastically drive up enrollment of white and Asian students, while representation of Black and Latinx students would plummet. “The participation of students of color and low-income students would “dro[p] precipitously, in some models to levels below 2 percent of the class,” they write. Moreover, a minimum GPA threshold alone could reduce the proportion of men to as low as one-third.

Baker and Bastedo note that while admissions lotteries may seem “like the most fair thing,” the “systematic inequalities in GPAs and standardized test scores will be baked into the results.”

Even significantly lowering those thresholds would not necessarily increase diversity, the researchers say. Conducting a separate lottery for each racial and ethnic group might—but “would almost certainly be illegal due to Supreme Court decisions outlawing quotas in college admissions,” they write.

Finally, the unpredictability and demographic variability of randomly selected classes would complicate campus planning. “While we did not seek to dismiss lotteries out of hand, there’s just no evidence that they are the solution,” Bastedo said in a release.

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